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Artist Stories

Hearing a voice through the rain

November, 2019 — — Vanessa Ferguson has been doing music “since forever”, her entire life. “Mother sang with me in her belly,” says Vanessa. Of course, as a teen, she says Micheal Jackson and Whitney Houston “were my everything”, and playing basketball was her first love. When an ailment hindered her during that critical high school recruitment period, singing became her path.

In 2017, Vanessa was coming off a South American tour with the BB King All Star Band with a break in her career path. High school friend Gavney was in the casting department for the Voice and when asked for recommendations, Vanessa’s voice came to mind. Vanessa received an email from out of the blue. Vanessa had done her share of local talent shows, and had no desire to do another. “I almost didn’t go.”

Vanessa didn’t go to win, and was amazed to discover most everyone else felt the same way. The experience was not what she expected. “I don’t think it is what people think it is. End of the day it is a TV show, rather than a talent competition. It offered opportunity to be seen and to make amazing connections with people in the industry. It was worth it.”

As a performer, it’s not just music, you have to navigate the business. Being a women in business has extra challenges, from how you dress to how you express your emotions. Thanks to Alicia Keys on the Voice, Vanessa felt she was allowed to remain true to herself.

The best part of the experience for Vanessa was actually afterwards. “Hollywood is a bubble. Inside the bubble, I performed on stage and it was amazing, but there aren’t as many people there as it looks like on TV. So you don’t realize the impact.” Receiving the key to the city of Greensboro meant a great deal for her. Vanessa realized her presence on her community, and in particular on young girls watching. “Little girls could see the show and see a different side. After all, some little girls don’t want to be Beyonce.”

Coming up this month in the Jazz Room, we welcome Vanessa Ferguson, who is bringing the NC native Nina Simone’s voice to life. Vanessa’s description for Nina Simone is “a national treasurer”.

Nina Simone was not just a great musician, she was an activist. “We often separate music and art from life and society. But they go hand in hand,” comments Vanessa. Simone sacrificed. Rather than doing popular music, she dedicated her entire existence to activism. “It’s crazy that these things are sort of coming full circle.” With politics and racial tensions being high, the same issues are in the forefront. So Nina’s music and her message are relevant. “I love the idea that I could be a branch from that tree that was Nina Simone.”

Vanessa had the opportunity to sing at the launching of Nina Simone’s childhood home preservation event last year in Tryon, NC. That day, she was to perform outside and it was being filmed. It was pouring rain, but there was a crowd there. They decided to bring everything into the house – the lighting and equipment – where there was no power and holes in the floor. As many people in the house as could fit, windows wide open because there was no air conditioning. It was miraculous that it worked at all. Cameras were finally rolling, they had been there for hours. In the middle of the music set, there was a moment where she began the song “Birds flying high you know how I feel in he sky…”, which begins acapella. It had just stopped down pouring rain and was completely silent. At that moment, a bird came to the window and started singing. We finished the song, all just looked at each other. It was almost like some sort of confirmation that this is where we were supposed to be in this moment. If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear it on the recording.

This month, in the JAZZ ROOM, we will hear this beautiful voice sing Nina Simone. And Friday at noon Vanessa will lead a FREE discussion about Simone’s amazing contribution to music, and to history, and the amazing hurdles Simone had to overcome to become one of the jazz and local history’s great influences.

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